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The European Council

The European Council, © Picture-alliance / dpa The European Council © Picture-alliance / dpa

The European Council is at the heart of European Union institutions, although not an institution under the treaties. The European Council was established in 1974 on the initiative of French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in order to formalise the "summits" held until then by Heads of State and Government. The European Council defines the general political guidelines of the European Union and was given increasing weight by the Single European Act (SEA) and the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam.

How does the European Council work?

Since the Decision of February 2002, the European Council has met in Brussels and consists of the Heads of State and Government and the President of the European Commission. They are assisted by the foreign ministers of EU Member States and a member of the Commission. European Council meetings are also attended by the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union who assists the President of the European Council, and by the Secretary-General of the European Commission.

The President of the European Council is the Head of State or Government whose country is holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The President chairs the meetings and draws up the conclusions following the Council.

Theoretically, the European Council meets four times a year, i.e. twice during each Presidency. In the event of exceptional circumstances, special European Councils may be held. Heads of State and Government meet the day before the Council meeting to prepare the proceedings of the following day.

European Council proceedings usually take place over one day. Before they start, the President of the European Parliament makes a declaration in which he outlines the European Parliament's position on the issues to be discussed by the Heads of State or Government.

European Council meetings are prepared by the General Affairs and External Relations Council of the Council of the European Union which also sets meetings' agendas as proposed by the Presidency of the European Council.

What does the European Council do?

The European Council gives the European Union the necessary impetus for the Union's development and defines EU general political guidelines, in particular in the field of Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The European Council is not a formal law-making body as such but the European Union's leading decision-making body, as sensitive issues are discussed and settled at EC meetings. The agreements made by Heads of State and Government are reached by consensus, not by voting. They are made public in the form of "Presidency Conclusions" that define political guidelines for EU Institutions and sometimes indicate stages and procedures for their implementation by the different European institutions.

The European Council may temporarily deprive a Member State of some of its rights should it observe grave violations of principles common to Member States such as freedom, democracy, respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law.

In addition, the European Council submits a report to the European Parliament after each European Council meeting, as well as an annual written report on the Union's achievements.

  • Updated: 27.08.2008
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